Chez Panisse

We choose our own entrees. Everything looks amazing, but I decide on pan-fried fish cakes -- despite having told Hubert that I would eat "anything but fish!" -- an allusion to the scary perch of "Darwin's Nightmare." The cosmopolitan Sauper, who was born in Austria, but has lived (and taught filmmaking) in England, Italy, and the United States, has a gift for instant intimacy -- useful at film festival dinners, as well as flying into remote African locations unannounced.  He now lives in Paris. (I often wonder why anyone lives anywhere else.) 

There's an our-end-of-the-table discussion about what Martin Marquet, Hubert's friend and publicist (and grandson of Jacques Tati's longtime writing partner Henri Marquet, should try, as a Chez Panisse novice: he goes with the famed grilled chicken al mattone (under a brick).  The vegetarians at the table order a luscious-looking (and tasting -- I grab a bite) lasagna verde with morel mushrooms, fresh ricotta, and spinach. Ruby Rich, who has brought copies of the new issue of Film Quarterly, which she's now editing, goes for the pork loin roasted with fennel seed and rosemary. I swap a crusty fish cake (and its accompanying shaved vegetable salad, new potatoes, and garlicky aioli) for more than a few of Noah's Hog Island clams in a pungent saffron and sorrel broth, jeweled with bright green peas. 

I'm sitting next to Anuradha, who provided Hubert with intel that led to one of the most moving scenes in "We Come as Friends," in which a village elder confesses that he unwittingly sold rights to all the natural resources of his 600,000 hectares of land to a Texas firm for $25,000. We are not unaware of the irony of feasting in honor of a movie about a land rife with "food insecurity," an ironic and euphemistic phrase for starvation.  But we are happy to be able to celebrate its creation, and also to hope that it helps to increase awareness in the world of Africa's continuing exploitation.   

Hubert, Martin, and others have been on the road for grueling and exciting months with "We Come as Friends" -- which premiered at Sundance in January, and was shown in New York at The Film Society of Lincoln Center's New Directors/New Films, as well as in Berlin, and is now en route to the Planet and Doc Film Festival in Poland.  They tell me that they all looked forward to Alice's dinner as "an oasis in the desert." It's a sweet moment, made sweeter by magically-appearing plates of rhubarb tart and the most evanescent of bittersweet chocolate brownies, as well as Alice's trademark copper bowls filled with tiny Pixie tangerines.  

Barney Broomfield is thrilled that the tangerines are supplied by his uncle and aunt's Ojai farm, Churchill-Brenneis, which is namechecked on the menu.  "How wonderful and random is that?," he says, and I tell him, shyly, that, equally randomly, years ago I was invited to a birthday party for his father, famed documentarian Nick Broomfield, and that Nick was more pleased with the Barney's box that the black-and-white scarf came in than with the gift, because of his son's name.

"You look like the perfect combination of your mother [documentarian and cinematographer Joan Churchill and father," I say. "Everybody says that," he replies.

By now the party is breaking up. I've not only dined superbly, but I've met some fascinating people. "This evening was like a spoonful of wonderfulness," one of them emails me afterwards, "such a delicious meal and amazing people to share it with."  

I'm reminded again of the other reason I love film festivals: not just the movies, but the people who make them and those who come to watch them.  In time to come I may forget some of the movies I see at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, but I'll never forget this dinner.  We left as friends.